By Bob Nightengale |
It’s a shame Eddie Gaedel isn’t with us anymore. This is his time to shine.
You remember Gaedel. He was the 3-foot-7 slugger hired by St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck as a publicity stunt to bat against the Detroit Tigers in the second game of a doubleheader in 1951.
He walked on four pitches in his only major-league plate appearance that afternoon, giving him a lifetime 1.000 on-base percentage.
He couldn’t hit. He couldn’t run. He had no power. He certainly would have struck out if he ever took the bat off his shoulders. But, oh, how he could draw a walk.
Gaedel would have fit right in today’s game of baseball, where fans are staying away in droves, scouts are covering their eyes in disbelief and baseball executives are running for cover.
In an era when athletes are bigger, stronger and faster, something has gone dreadfully wrong with our glorious pastime.
Players are striking out more than at any time, an alarming 22.5 percent of all plate appearances. We are on pace for more strikeouts than hits – 18,613 strikeouts compared to 18,136 hits entering Wednesday’s non-action.
The National League, which is expected to adopt the DH within the next five years, has only four teams with more hits than strikeouts.
Yet instead of these offensive woes dragging teams down like they’re the ’62 Mets, they’re hardly a detriment.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have the lowest batting average (.227) in all of baseball, with 135 more strikeouts than hits, and they’re in first place in the NL West.
The Milwaukee Brewers have been shut out a major-league-leading 10 times, produced a paltry .316 on-base percentage, have grounded into more double plays than any team in the NL and they’re in first place in the NL Central.
The Cleveland Indians are the only team in their division, the American League Central, with a winning record, a division so putrid that it has been outscored by a cumulative 230 runs.
A staggering 41 position players who appeared in Tuesday night’s games were batting .200 or below.
The disparity between the haves and have-nots among teams never has been greater, either. There are five teams with winning percentages below .400 and four teams that are on pace to win 100 games – both would be unprecedented marks should they hold up.
It’s sucking the life out of any suspense in the AL, unless you’re a lover of playoff seeding. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros and Indians can virtually set their playoff rotations now, with playoff probabilities of at least 96%, according to FanGraphs.
And you wonder why attendance is down 6.5 percent from this point last year. The average attendance to date is 27,675, which would be the lowest since 1996.
While some of the 18 teams whose attendance has declined from a year ago may make up the gap in the summer months, there are five whose attendance has plummeted by more than 200,000 fans. The Toronto Blue Jays, who have a retractable roof, are down a major-league worst 429,665 fans – 11,017 fewer per game.
The game is simply devoid of action, with players striking out, walking or hitting home runs in 34 percent of their plate appearances. So, for more than a third of every game, there’s not a fielder involved in the action.
The average time between balls put in play, according to “Sports Illustrated,” is a staggering 3 minutes, 45 seconds.
Meanwhile, scoreboards display an academic decathlon’s worth of advanced statistics, almost drowning out the fact that the team that scores the most runs actually wins the game.
“The two biggest stats to me are runs scored and RBI,’’ says two-time MVP Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, the game’s greatest player in the midst of his finest season. “I mean, that’s how you win games right, scoring the most runs?’’
In theory, yes. But why ponder actual outcomes when you can obsess over expected ones?
We’re having our heads filled with so many exit velocities, spin rates, launch angles and catch probabilities, it’s as if scoring the most runs in a game is considered as antiquated as the eight-track.
These days you’re a hero when you take that pitch that’s 1/8th of an inch off the plate and draw your walk, even though a mere ground ball to the right side of the infield would have driven in that runner from third base with less than two outs.
If you strike out three times but happen to mix in a walk, take a bow.
Strikeouts used to be a hitter’s ultimate embarrassment.
We’re seeing relievers start games these days, legitimate starters expected to last 5⅓ innings, shifts on every pitch and hit-and-runs becoming as obsolete as library cards.
Pitchers are pitching away from contact, hitters are swinging like it’s a Sunday beer league softball game, and every game is being managed like it’s Game 7 of the World Series.
We’ve already had three no-hitters – one more than the last two seasons combined – with eight pitchers having a no-hitter through at least seven innings and 27 pitchers with a no-no through six innings.
When will it end? Can we have some baserunners now and then? How about some old-fashioned rallies? Perhaps the occasional baserunner in motion?
Hitters aren’t saying they want the shift outlawed, but they sure wouldn’t mind seeing the mounds lowered, with pitchers such as Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander doing their greatest Bob Gibson impersonation, or maybe pushing the mound back.
If you listen to the umpires, and pitching coaches, too, maybe widening the strike zone is the answer, at least forcing hitters to swing the bat.
Some players, such as Washington Nationals All-Star outfielder Bryce Harper, are suggesting games be reduced to seven innings.
Commissioner Rob Manfred believes a pitch clock would be the magical elixir. Perhaps it wouldn’t bring any further excitement into the game, but it at least would reduce the time of boredom.
Maybe we just have to be patient, hoping this is only an ugly cycle. Maybe, in time, hitters will actually learn to hit the other way and actually beat those relentless shifts.
But baseball better hurry, because with the NFL dominating the sports landscape and LeBron James and the NBA stealing the headlines, it’s starting to get late awfully early.